The ATC Shortage; A Global Pandemic

Worldwide, airlines have expanded their fleets and ambitiously foresee the doubling of commercial jets during the next two decades as the number of air travelers approaches 7 billion. The concern, however, is that there won’t be enough controllers to oversee the organization of those 44,000 planes. The International Civil Aviation Organization predicts that by 2030, we will need another 40,000 air traffic controllers to handle the increase in air traffic.

With a global shortage of controllers, you may see remote operators take over small fields to free up controllers for the larger commercial airports… — Tyler Shelton | ATC Community Manager

One solution could be exactly that; implement remote operations for smaller airports to allow for more in-person controlling at the hubs we all know and love. Imagine a wall of flat-screen TVs and a few tablets controlled by a stylus.

Some airports are now testing “remote towers” that allow controllers to sit hundreds of miles away and still effectively monitor operations through high-definition cameras and sensors. The futuristic technology is even sensitive enough to penetrate fog and detect wild animals on runways. The companies behind this project claim it’s cheaper than hiring controllers to fill vacancies at smaller and more remote airports.

“We can see a huge interest from all continents,” Dan-Aake Enstedt, Saab’s Asia-Pacific manager, said in an email. “This lets you operate an airport that might otherwise be too expensive to keep open, or help to smooth the flow of traffic around major airports as they expand.”

Saab’s system resembles an immersive IMAX theater. An array of screens on the wall gives the illusion of actually being in the tower, spotting aircraft through the windows, with radar blips tracked on a desktop monitor and flights managed by oversized tablets. Graphics pop up on the screens, and the controller can maneuver a camera to take a closer look at the airport or aircraft, just like our free camera in Infinite Flight.

Airservices Australia, the government entity that employs more than 1,000 controllers, said in an email that it is considering “further evaluation and potential deployment of this type of technology.”

The executive airport in Leesburg, Virginia, which has installed 14 cameras, says the concept is supported by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, adding that it cuts costs and improves staffing models.

Another solution could be reducing the controller’s workload by using artificial intelligence. Different forms of this are being tested or used around the world.

One example of this is the so-called Intelligent Assistant. The assistant could be listening to the conversation between controllers and pilots while also processing weather data from sensors on the plane and other sources such as the IATA turbulence platform. Integrating the data and the conversations, with a bit of AI-based processing, could allow the Intelligent Assistant to recommend a deviation in course to improve the ride.

Another example is AIMEE, the AI-supported assistant being trialed at London’s Heathrow Airport. The use of ultra high definition cameras and digital processing software can tell when aircraft have exited the runway, allowing controllers to clear the next arrival, even if the tower is fogged in. This is extremely helpful in Europe especially, since clearances can only be given when the runway is clear of any aircraft.

AI is obviously not replacing the ATC job but merely lightening the load of the job. For more insight on the matter, I looked to a real-world controller at Harrisburg International Airport (KMDT), Tyler Shelton. He responded by saying,

I don’t expect AI to takeover Air Traffic Control responsibilities in our lifetime. Often times the human element with its reliance on training and experience can be the deciding factor in critical moments that will result in life or death. There are a few airports that are already using remote ATC where a single person can monitor a series of cameras and displays, but I’ve got to imagine there is a certain threshold in terms of airport size, complexity, and traffic volume where that can still be an effective method.

With a global shortage of controllers, you may see remote operators take over small fields to free up controllers for the larger commercial airports but I certainly wouldn’t expect your global HUBs to transition to this remote coverage anytime soon. Things happen quickly and you need trained eyes watching things from a first-person perspective without the chance of interference or technical difficulties. Much like any aviation incident, it only takes one major accident to revert all progress made on remote ATC, AI, or any other replacement to the highly trained force that aviation authorities around the world have already invested so much in.

In the world of aviation, a delicate balance between efficiency and safety is highly sought after. Of course, the latter outweighs the former. How do we provide more ATC coverage while still providing safe and quality coverage? How do we keep up with the ever-expanding industry? Is it a good idea to involve AI in air traffic control? Feel free to leave comments, thoughts, questions, or feedback down below!


Bibliography

“Bringing Artificial Intelligence to ATC: Huge Promises, Challenging Timelines.” PaxEx.Aero , 25 Jan. 2019, https://paxex.aero/2019/01/artificial-intelligence-air-traffic-control-atc-thales/.

Noyes, Dan. “Could Air Traffic Controller Shortage Have Impact on Safety?” ABC7 San Francisco , 13 Oct. 2018, https://abc7news.com/4468996/.

“Robots May Solve the Global Air Traffic Controller Shortage.” Skift , 23 Apr. 2016, https://skift.com/2016/04/23/robots-may-solve-the-global-air-traffic-controller-shortage/.

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Interesting read! I’m not sure how I feel about using remote towers. What happens when the power goes out? What if one of the screens goes out? What about connection delay? In terms of AI assistance I think it could be implemented with lots of testing. Keep us updated!
Edit: What happens when a controller has an issue? like that ATC at Las Vegas who passed out.

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Interesting. People probably don’t want to tell people what to do and stare at a screen all day. Another solution could be making multiple copies of @Tyler_Shelton 😂

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Shame to see this happening. I have huge respect for ATC and that is part of the reason why I would never feel comfortable having AI takeover. It just links back to AI pilots in the future. No human factor.

I feel for people around the world at remote airports because I know myself there is this huge community with both pilots and controllers. The aerodrome I am doing my PPL at has this wonderful community and you can often go to have a sit in the tower or grab a quick tea when the controllers are on a break. To see this becoming an option is really sad and I think we all need to treasure it whilst we can, the visual contact instead of over a radio.

A fantastic topic that really brings to light the fantastic dedication from people like @Tyler_Shelton and I think the world needs to know what we are up against.

Cheers :)
Cign

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I could see this being a major flaw in the system. I’ll look into it and get back to you.

Definitely could work, hopefully we get that technology in time!

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Yes, I totally agree. My local field has a wonderful community too. It would be such a shame for that to be displaced by computers.

Good read. It looks like there’s a shortage all around in aviation. I’d like to see remote ATC be implemented but I hope there aren’t any complications with it. Nothing can truly replace sitting in a tower at the airport being controlled.

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I’ve heard if this, but this got me a lot more information. Nice post!

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Great post, Luca! Very informative! Thanks for writing!

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Definitely a shortage everywhere in aviation. Maybe air travel will slow though if businesses are looking to keep workers remote through software like Zoom.

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Great read here! Though I would never prefer AI, or any sort of automation, to the human mind.

Even though it would make workloads easier on the controllers, and either the AI or cameras would help them, nothing compares to humans. What if the power goes out, or what if one of the cameras glitches out? Even if they don’t, there’s still some delay between when something happens to when a camera or computer processes that action — which could be potentially dangerous.

Plus, think about the community aspect. There are hundreds of small airfields with tight-knit communities. Pilots, mechanics, controllers, all friends. Those small communities would loose so much if small airfields and airports transitioned to cameras in the tower, and being controlled remotely.
Even my second home airport, KEQY, would suffer so much from this, since it’s a small, but friendly community.

I would never trust AI doing controlling an airport, let alone controllers looking at cameras, instead of directly at planes. I have huge respect for these controllers, no matter what — but I can’t see cameras replacing eyes, and I can’t see AI replacing controllers, even in minor roles.

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Well said, thank you for your thoughts!

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Definitely a interesting read. In many airports around the world fog and other weather can be a problem. Even if technology can be that good it would still be hard. In many conditions ATC has to see the aircraft visually when landing which couldn’t be done remotely.

I agree, and a mixture of AI and human ATC would be nice. For example, cameras to see when an aircraft has exited the runway fully. Little things like that could help ATC talk to a lot more aircraft at the same time.

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Really interesting read, I do believe that the future of aviation is AI but this would also be an interesting step to mitigate the problems associated with an increasingly interconnected world.

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Absolutely, and the shift to AI will not be a one-day thing. It will come in waves, first incorporating AI to complete brainless tasks and then incorporating it to complete human tasks. It is definitely something that we must feel comfortable with before a major transition occurs.

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That one day may be 10 years from now or it may be 100 but it will happen and the results of it will have an enormous impact on the entire industry.

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I have question. In real life at the airports is there radar on ground so you can see where planes are in the airport? Like in the game infinite flight

Very true. I wonder how long humans will be babysitters to the computer before the computer is trusted and no human is required to monitor things in the tower/cockpit. There are so many factors to take into account and as Tyler said, “Often times the human element with its reliance on training and experience can be the deciding factor in critical moments that will result in life or death.”

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Some larger airports have Surface Movement Radar (SMR), designed to display the location of aircraft and vehicles on the ground. These are used by ground controllers as an additional tool to track ground traffic, particularly at night or in poor visibility. See below for more information on the topic: